Like so many other new-made towns, Washington lacks whatever it is that gives Old Western (I have followed C. S. Lewis in capitalizing the words “Old Western” as he did in his lecture “De Descriptione Temporum”) cities like Arles and Kraków, Munich and Venice, their charm and interest. It would be extravagant to criticize Lewis for his failure to ask why Washington lacks this deeper civic artistry: yet it is difficult not to conclude that the problem of Washington—essentially the problem of the American city—is bigger than Lewis allows.A truly revealing history of any American town, big or small, would take into account not only what is there but what is not there. It would look to the work of Léon Krier, John Ruskin, T. J. Gorringe, and Camillo Sitte for clues as to what is missing. It would ask why, in ages materially poorer than our own, men and women built beautiful towns while we, in our prosperity, pass our days amid prefabrication and poured concrete.
Such a history would pay close attention to the argument of Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture…. Huizinga argues not implausibly that the arts which in the past gathered up the various threads of particular communities in the warp of a common culture were closely connected to play, an activity that he thinks allows people momentarily to escape the constraints of time and space, and to enter imaginatively a “region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter.
”Mystic bosh? Perhaps. But there is no getting around the fact that the arts before which we bow down today with such frigid solemnity had their origins in the exuberant creativity of the civic playpen. They are a byproduct of the life of the old town squares. Western theater grew out of the demotic song and dance of a Greek wine-drinking festival. Western architecture is an outgrowth of communal ritual: it was the need for liturgical focal points that bred the West’s paramount architectural idioms, that of the Greek temple and the Gothic cathedral. Ditto sculpture, which gave form to the community’s idea of the divine, and music, which regulated the rhythms of its festivals. The Floral Games at Toulouse, the tableaux vivants of Michelangelo’s Florence, the mystery plays of Metz and Nancy, the Venetian carnivals that captivated Veronese—these were the playful and popular nurseries of arts that have since been transplanted into the sterile, high-brow soil of the museum and the concert hall or transmuted into the solipsistic entertainments of the movie and television screen.